Flying without a pilot
Since its beginnings, the aeronautical industry has been synonymous with innovation, planning and control. Statistically, the civil airplane is considered the safest means of passenger transportation in the world, and this is largely due to the constant technological evolution but also to the exhaustive control of each of the processes involved, such as the control of air routes, the checking and maintenance of each of the thousands of parts that make up each aircraft and the demanding training to which pilots are subjected.
This last point is where technology significantly shortened the time, since through the use of simulation cockpits and the use of virtual reality and augmented reality; pilots can receive countless hours of training while on the ground, but with the sensations of being in the air. In this way, flights can be simulated with different variables, such as adverse weather conditions and possible mechanical or electrical failures of the aircraft, so that pilots can absorb the experience of flying with certain problems without risking their safety or that of their passengers.
But what would happen if we put aside the human factor and aircraft could fly autonomously through the use of AI and algorithms? At the moment, we are at a very early stage to apply these concepts in commercial aviation because of the risks involved, but meanwhile, military aviation is at a much more advanced stage of experimentation and, as we already know, the research and development of the military branch are sometimes absorbed by the civil industry, achieving significant advances.
Although military aviation is seeking to train new pilots at an accelerated pace, everything seems to indicate that it will have a trend toward autonomy in the not-too-distant future. General Dynamics (NYSE: GD) has become one of the world’s most important defence contractors since the post-Cold War period. Within the military aeronautics industry, it is synonymous with innovation, having been responsible for designing legendary aircraft such as the F-16 Falcon. General Dynamics (NYSE: GD) recently announced the incorporation of its experimental X-62 VISTA aircraft into the U.S. Air Force Skyborg program, giving us a glimpse of what is to come. This program proposes the creation of swarms of autonomous aircraft that, equipped with AI, will carry out missions that, on certain occasions, will not require human intervention.
Those of us who are fans of these warbirds can’t help but draw an analogy to Paramount Global’s (NASDAQ: PARA) recent hit film Top Gun: Maverick. In the film, Captain Mitchell is a test pilot for the “Darkstar” project, a hypersonic aircraft that bears many similarities to Lockheed Martin’s (NYSE: LMT) secret SR-72 project; in fact, the company collaborated with Tom Cruise’s production team to design the concept of the aircraft shown in the film.
The film shows us that the “Darkstar” project is about to be cancelled in order to divert its funds to the autonomous aircraft program. Therefore, Captain Mitchell decides to disobey orders and demonstrate that a well-trained pilot is capable of achieving a feat, and only a few minutes later, ruin it by the human impulse to defy limits. And from here, some questions arise as an AI might be able to carry out a mission faster and more accurately, but would it accept to fly a mission that predicts a low success rate? Would it risk the mission to save the life of a fellow pilot? To what extent would it take orders that defy logic and statistics?
The disruption caused by the transfer of human operations to AI territory is being analyzed from many approaches that generate opinions of all kinds. But in the case of aeronautics, the controversy is even greater, as it puts countless human lives at risk. For this reason, commercial aviation remains more skeptical about the application of autonomy and is increasingly betting on pilot training in simulators. By 2040, it is estimated that at least 600,000 new pilots will have to be trained to keep pace with the industry.
The shortage of commercial pilots is another problem facing the industry, and Merlin Labs is proposing a hybrid solution, which consists of providing aircraft with autonomy while the pilot would travel alone as an observer and act in the event of emergencies. This would make pilots’ work more relaxed, freeing them from stress and shortening their rest periods.
With our eyes on the future and on companies like General Dynamics (NYSE: GD), it is impossible to know whether a full level of autonomy will be achieved, both commercially and militarily. What we do know is that the passion for flying is something inherent in many of us, and although technology advances in many aspects, sometimes it cannot compete with human passion but creates a symbiosis with it, generating a result that takes the best of both parts.